Silicon Isn't Ready To Go Into Retirement

Silicon, the semiconductor industry's aging grandfather, is suddenly more youthful. Scientists have long predicted that inherent speed limits in silicon would force it to give way to a faster material such as gallium arsenide around the year 2000. But they didn't reckon on Bernard S. Meyerson.

The manager of electronic materials research at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center found a way to alloy silicon with a bit of germanium so electrons can zip along faster than in either material alone. Such a mixture wasn't thought practical because the two crystals' atomic structures don't match up. But Meyerson developed precise controls for growing crystals that can add new material in layers just one atom thick.

Last year, IBM used this compound to make bipolar transistors--found mostly in mainframe computers -- that are almost twice as fast as previous silicon switches and close to gallium arsenide's best. In late May, IBM repeated the feat with field-effect transistors, the type used in personal computers and consumer electronics. So, says IBM, silicon is here to stay.